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The Mystics have turned a corner from their past as a perennially low-performing team

For many years, the Mystics were known to be one of the WNBA’s worst-performing franchises. Over the past six years, that has changed for the better. Can Washington seal the deal on their improved fortunes with a WNBA Championship?

The Mystics have been long known as a low-performing team. But not anymore.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

In every professional sports leagues, there are high-level performers known for winning championship after championship, and the WNBA is no different. Teams like the Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury, Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm have all won multiple WNBA titles. In fact, those teams have won over half of all of the WNBA Championships, to-date.

Every league also has teams that are perennially towards the bottom of the standings, and when they win half of their games, that’s when those teams call the year a success. In the NBA, teams like the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have lost more than they have won most years. In the NFL, the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars are often bottom-feeders. But the WNBA has its own perennial bottom-feeder as well: the Washington Mystics.

Granted, the Mystics are playing in their second straight semifinals and right now may not seem like the right time to talk about it. But really, this team has come quite a long way in the last several years, since Mike Thibault became the General Manager and Head Coach before the 2013 season.

But for most of the Mystics’ 21-year history, the team has either missed the playoffs or squeezed in as a .500 team. In their first 15 years (1998-2012), Washington only advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals once. Additionally, the team won 20 regular-season games just one time, in 2010, thanks to a six-game win streak toward the end of that regular season.

Though there were some good moments for the Mystics, they were better known in the WNBA for setting the mark for futility. In their 21 seasons, the Mystics are 295-407 with an all-time winning percentage of just 42 percent.

Washington is also the only WNBA franchise that has yet to make the Finals.

Why have the Mystics done poorly over the years?

First, the Mystics were the recipients of bad luck in the WNBA Draft Lottery several times since 2002. The Mystics had the highest chance or second-highest chance to draft first in the 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2013 Drafts, but Washington failed to draft the superstars available due to the lottery results, hurting their ceiling. If things had gone Washington’s way in one of those years, perhaps seeing Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry or Brittney Griner in a Mystics’ uniform would have made a big difference in the team’s success.

Second, the Mystics experienced numerous head coaching changes in the first 15 years of the franchise’s existence, with Washington proving unable to keep a head coach for longer than two-and-half seasons. In their first 15 years, the team perhaps would have known success had Julie Plank stayed as the head coach beyond her two-year stint (2009, 2010). But Washington felt the need to consolidate the GM and Head Coach positions, the of which Plank was not interested.

At the other end of the spectrum, Plank’s successor, Trudi Lacey, should have been fired sooner than she actually was following the Mystics’ dismal 2012 season, during which they won only five games and lost 29.

Improvements in the Mike Thibault era

In the last six seasons, Thibault has committed heavily to the players he drafted, trading them only when a favorable opportunity came his way. He also has put his system in place and only drafted those players who fit his vision best, with owner Ted Leonsis showing patience while the Mystics built with youth around draft picks. Building around youth helped create the foundation of players the Mystics have now — of which now-franchise player Elena Delle Donne is the centerpiece.

On the surface, the Mystics looked like they were still a mediocre team between 2013 and 2017.

Washington didn’t win 20 games in a regular season and they didn’t advance a round until the 2017 playoffs. But, during that time, the main contributors behind those teams changed drastically — from Crystal Langhorne, Monique Currie and Matee Ajavon (in 2013) to Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Ariel Atkins (today). The only players from the 2013 team who are still on the Mystics today are Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Currie (who left in 2015 and re-signed with Washington this season) and Emma Meesseman (though she missed this season due to international commitments).

The Mystics still have two more wins to go before advancing to their first WNBA Finals in franchise history. And Washington has momentum on its side. The team has won 10 of its last 11 games in both the regular and postseasons, and could very well win the championship this season.

But even if the Mystics don’t win the championship or make the Finals, the 2018 season and the rebuilding years before it are a sign that they have truly turned a corner from their past as a perennially low-performing team.